A few months ago the New York Times had an article about a study that challenged the conventional wisdom that used books cannibalize new book sales (see my post about it here). Now the Book Industry Study Group has released a report that delivers some numbers on used books sales, which are famously difficult to collect. A post at the bookfinder.com journal breaks down the data, but one key point is that the majority of used book dollars go to textbooks; understandable considering what college students are expected to shell out. Another key point is this: “General used book sales account for 3% of the value of all general book sales.” That number seems awfully non-threatening to me, but as this AP story makes clear, the book industry is not worried about the total number, they are worried about the growth of general (non-textbook) online used book sales (25% between 2003 and 2004); they are worried about promotional copies getting sold on eBay or Amazon; And they are worried that the consumer book market will start to look like the market for textbooks, where prices spiral ever upward and (where applicable) new editions are released with alarming frequency in order to combat losses from used book sales. Is this the book industry’s fault for making books too expensive and not finding better ways to embrace the new economy or are Amazon and eBay destroying the book industry as we know it (and would that be a good thing?)
First, fiction. It almost goes without saying that people are still reading The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem, but last week I noticed some other new fiction making inroads among the reading public. Mailman the fourth novel by J. Robert Lennon takes its title from the occupation of the main character, Albert Lippencott, "a loner who reads the mail before delivering it." Ever since I read Thomas Pynchon's paranoiac masterpiece, The Crying of Lot 49, I've thought that there is a wealth of material that might be mined from the machinations of the Postal Service. When you look at it in a certain way, mail is a pretty crazy thing; billions of pieces of paper crisscrossing one another invisibly from one end of the world to the other and so many stories in those letters. Also proving popular, due at least in part to impeccable reviews, is The Known World by Edward P. Jones. And lastly, lots of people are looking to read Charles Baxter's latest, Saul and Patsy. Like his previous novels, Baxter's latest is thoughtful, reflective and "quietly triumphant." Several of my trusted fellow readers have singled out Saul and Patsy as a book they are dying to read.
As any student of the history of the English language - or of Walter Scott - knows, our having, as English speakers, different words for food on the hoof and food on the table is no idle fact. Consider the opening scene of Ivanhoe, in which the swineherd Gurth and Wamba the jester debate this very point:Why, how call you those grunting brutes running about on their four legs?" demanded Wamba."Swine, fool, swine," said the herd, "every fool knows that.""And swine is good Saxon," said the Jester; "but how call you the sow when she is flayed, and drawn, and quartered, and hung up by the heels, like a traitor?""Pork," answered the swine-herd."I am very glad every fool knows that too," said Wamba, "and pork, I think, is good Norman-French; and so when the brute lives, and is in the charge of a Saxon slave, she goes by her Saxon name; but becomes a Norman, and is called pork, when she is carried to the Castle-hall to feast among the nobles; what dost thou think of this, friend Gurth, ha?""It is but too true doctrine, friend Wamba, however it got into thy fool's pate."After the Norman Invasion in 1066, Norman French became the language of power in Britain, spoken by the king and court and any who wanted favor from them. The conquered residents of Britain, speakers of the Germanic Old English, were those who raised, tended, and hunted animals: Thus, cow (kuh), calf (kalb), swine (schweine), deer (deor), sheep (schaf), and hen (huhn) for living animals, while the wealthy Norman conquerors tended to be those who enjoyed the animals at table: Thus, beef (boeuf), pork (porc), mutton (mouton), and poultry (poulet).The English words have always seemed to me more sturdy - as well as more coarse. Like chewing a mouthful of rocks or biting into the branch of a sapling - too fibrous to chew, sour with sap. The French words seem like tiny exhalations of essence - bouef, mouton - the soul of the thing rather than sinews and bones.I think brains can take the character of their mother tongues. I am quite sure my brain is Anglo-Saxon - all sap and fibers and rocks and bones.
From the far side of the Great Financial Meltdown, 1994's Speed, ostensibly just another popcorn flick, starts to look instead like a brilliant allegory. Pop quiz, hot shot: Dennis Hopper: "The airport. Gunman with one hostage. He's using her for cover. He's almost to a plane. You're a hundred feet away." Keanu Reeves: "Shoot the hostage." Don't see it yet? Consider: Keanu is the government, Hopper is the neoliberal consensus, the crazy person waving the Glock around is the financial industry, the bullet is two trillion dollars in losses, and the poor schmo being jerked hither and yon is you and me. Readers concerned to further understand the dynamics of our own particular hostage crisis would do well to look at a couple of more recent documents: The Big Short and Diary of a Very Bad Year: Confessions of an Anonymous Hedge Fund Manager. Their charms are complementary. In the former, Michael Lewis, a Salomon Brothers alum, brings an insider's savvy to the subprime crisis. In the latter, N+1 (in the person of Keith Gessen) lends an outsider's ear to the brilliant disquisitions of a guy caught in the middle of it all. And read side-by-side these books do something even more valuable. They suggest that our captivity is at least partly in the mind - that even the most astute critics of what Lewis calls "The Doomsday Machine" have internalized some of the premises that made it possible. In the case of The Big Short, that suggestion feels accidental. Lewis (also the author of The Blind Side, among other bestsellers) knows that every good story needs someone to root for, and so, against the big New York investment banks, he fields a kind of Magnificent Seven of scrappy smaller investors. (Smaller is a relative term, of course; most of these guys have tens of millions of dollars of assets under management.) Most compelling is his central character, Mike Burry, a California-based hedge-fund principal with a glass eye and Asperger's syndrome. Burry, as Lewis tells it, was one of the only people in America with the acumen - and, thanks to the Asperger's, the patience - to evaluate the actual mortgage tranches underlying those now infamous "toxic assets." And, with our American admiration for an underdog, we cheer Burry on as he tries to find a way to monetize his discoveries before the subprime market collapses. Lewis explains with great lucidity how, via the esoteric financial instruments Burry engineers (or rather, has Goldman Sachs engineer) theoretically endless profits can be manufactured from a single piece of subprime paper, like Xeroxes from an original. What he never quite spells out, though, is that the huge profits Burry amasses shorting the subprime market also represent huge losses for his counterparties - and thus (by way of bailouts and layoffs) to taxpayers all over the world. Perhaps this is why the The Big Short, in the end, lacks a sense of moral payoff. It's as if the Wall Street Journal narrative of enterprise as an end in itself has gained traction not only with Burry, but with Lewis. At the very least, it says something that he takes as his hero of the financial crisis...a hedge-fund guy. Gessen is more explicit about the amorality of postmodern finance. In an introductory note about the anonymous hedge fund manager who is his subject (henceforth, and in the book, HFM), he laments "that a mind so excellent, so generous, so curious, should spend all its time on relative trading in foreign jurisdictions and yelling at people who refuse to pay him back. . . ." But in this note, as in the interviews that follow, we can feel him being seduced, as we are, by HFM's formidable intellect. Indeed, Gessen wants us to feel that seduction. HFM's mind is "excellent" - and makes for excellent reading. Listening to him discourse on capital flows, currency speculation, real estate, literature, and hedge-fund folkways is like taking a terrific college elective, minus the final exam: There's some people who think the problem is so bad that if you actually recognize the losses, that it's akin to smashing the equipment in the factory. Because these institutions can't exist anymore, right? That for a bank, if you say, "Look, you can't exist anymore. You're so deeply insolvent that everybody's fired and everybody's got to leave," at that point financial intermediation won't work anymore. It doesn't matter that you've marked everything down to the level that makes sense - you don't have a financial system anymore. And a lot of people think that's one of the reasons the Great Depression was so difficult to get out of, that the financial machinery was smashed. So I think which camp you fall into depends a little on how bad you think the damage is. Still, like Burry's, and perhaps even Lewis', HFM's is a captive mind. For all his candor about the causes of the financial crisis, he speaks from within a framework of essentially Friedmanite, free-market fundamentalism. As he's speculating about martial law and breadlines, his biggest worry remains not widespread unemployment, but...the possibility of inflation and its effect on currency values. (His concessions to Keynesianism seem to evaporate as the immediate crisis of the Lehman Brothers collapse recedes.) Nor does HFM appear to see the shenanigans of the financial sector as systemic, rather than as tokens of personal fraudulence on the part of unsavory "dirtbags." Gessen's interviewing strategy - to present himself as a novice in search of instruction - succeeds brilliantly, in that it gets HFM to open up in all kinds of compelling and admirable ways. On the other hand, it means that his macroeconomic premises tend to go unchallenged. Narratives about the horrors of stimulative deficit spending, in particular, have lately become a viral element in the body politic. As with New York's fiscal crisis of the 1970s, or the various currency collapses of the 1990s, the public is being set up to choose between punishment at the hand of "bond vigilantes" or draconian "austerity measures" designed to ward off default. Notice, though, that those bond vigilantes are the very people who got us into this mess in the first place. Notice that the rate of inflation reported a few days ago was essentially 0%. And notice that, if we accept the choice as it is being framed for us, the hostage is screwed either way. I invite you to think back to Speed. One of the first questions we're trained to ask about any narrative is whether the narrator is reliable. And if history has taught us anything, people, it's that Dennis Hopper is f-ing crazy. Bonus links: An excerpt from The Big Short A collection of HFM interviews from nplusonemag.com
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This must be some sign of the times: our friends at The New Yorker are currently offering the DVD-ROM set of "every page of every issue" at the fire sale price of $19.99 (and Amazon has it for as cheap as $16.72 as of this writing, though the sets for sale there may only be through 2005). It would seem that, during the time-intensive process of digitizing the New Yorker archive, technology outran itself. Shortly after the release of the boxed set, as we pointed out last year, "Every page of every issue" became available to subscribers at newyorker.com. That is to say, the DVD-ROM version is already obsolete. Still, there's something amazing - even scandalous - about having the collected labor of White, Addams, Trow, Frazier et al. sitting in a svelte case on your desk. And heaven knows Condé Nast needs the revenue: The New Yorker was apparently its biggest ad-page loser last year, and we took note of a decidedly slimmer Winter Fiction Issue in September.